Riquna “BayBay’’ Williams, fresh off her rookie WNBA season, is packing up her belongings in Tulsa, Okla., this week and heading to her new job in Kosice, Slovakia, a town known for the world’s second-oldest marathon and a 14th-century Gothic cathedral.
Shenise “Moe’’ Johnson, the San Antonio Silver Stars’ first-round pick in the April WNBA Draft, will soon be off to Sopron, Hungary, the birthplace of famous composer Franz Liszt.
Life as a professional basketball player is about to get really interesting (and a bit scary) for the former University of Miami stars.
Neither player has ever set foot in Europe. Each will be the only American on her team. Both expect to be homesick. But the financial reality of women’s basketball leaves them little choice if they want to pursue their passion.
The average WNBA rookie salary is $36,570, the league minimum for a veteran is $54,000 and the maximum is $105,000. The NBA league minimum, by comparison, is $473,604 and the average NBA salary is $5 million, compared with $72,000 for the WNBA. The WNBA season lasts only four months, so the vast majority of the players head overseas to make the bulk of their annual income.
Twenty-eight WNBA players spent last winter in the Turkish league. Other popular destinations for WNBA players are Israel and Russia. The European league pays American players a sixth-month salary ranging anywhere from $40,000 to $500,000 for superstars such as Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker.
Those paychecks come with a price, however. American players have to leave the comfort of their country to play far away from family and friends. They are typically the only American on their team, so there are language and cultural barriers to overcome. And there are long bus rides. Lots of them.INTO THE UNKNOWN
Williams admitted last week she knows nothing at all about Slovakia or her new team. In fact, she didn’t even know the name of the team. Turns out she is playing for the Kosice Good Angels and is listed as the starting point guard on the team’s website. She will be playing alongside complete strangers named Lucia Kupcikova, Beata Jaoscikova, Tijana Krivacevic, Miljana Borjoric and Helena Sverrisdottin. Two are from Slovakia, two from Serbia, and one from Iceland. Williams has no idea if any of them, or their coaches, speak English.
“This is what I have to do to follow my dream,” Williams said. “At some point, if you’re a woman playing basketball, you have to go overseas. We really have no choice. I’m nervous, definitely. I have no idea what to expect. But I hear they take care of you, give you a nice apartment. I signed for only three months instead of six in case I get too homesick.”
Williams grew up in Pahokee and was known to get homesick during her four years at UM. Getting acclimated to life in Tulsa was no easy feat, but at least they have Applebee’s, Olive Garden and a cozy soul food place named Sweet Lisa’s. Slovakia will feel like Mars.
Johnson has traveled to Thailand with USA Basketball but never to Europe. She is joining a Sopron team whose roster includes Zsofia Fegyverneky, Sara Krnjic, Fanni Szabo, Vivien Borondy and Zsófia Licskai. The club finished runner-up in the Hungarian playoffs last season. That’s about all Johnson knows.
“I’m sure it will be rough the first couple of weeks, and I’ll feel really far from everything I know, but I’m excited to embrace the culture and learn,” Johnson said. “I’ll find a way to adjust. I’m a chameleon.”
That said, Johnson wishes she could stay on U.S. soil.
“Nobody wants to be forced to go live so far away,” she said. “It’s also hard on our bodies to have to play all year-round. We don’t get a four-month break like the guys do. But I’m doing what I love, and I’ll go wherever I have to.”
Williams and Johnson have both struggled at times this summer as they adjust to the WNBA game and new roles. Johnson started only one of 34 games for San Antonio (20-13), averaged 17.1 minutes, 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds. Williams started three of 33 games for the Shock (9-25), averaged 20.3 minutes, 10.5 points and 2.1 rebounds.
“I haven’t been playing my best basketball at all, and that’s frustrating,” Johnson said. “I’m not playing as confident or as free as I did at UM. I have never had to come off the bench in my whole life, so that’s new.
“I’m also being asked to be a spot-up shooter here, and I’m used to creating. So I have to adjust to that. The half-court game is quicker in the pros. My coaches and teammates have confidence in me, so I have to try to relax and have fun and my game will come back.”
Johnson speaks to UM coach Katie Meier every few weeks and gets encouragement from those conversations.
“She tells me I’m at my best when I’m smiling and loose, and she says I look too quiet out there, she doesn’t see me being a leader,” Johnson said. “Being a rookie, I don’t want to step on any toes. I’m sure with time I’ll get more comfortable.”
Williams had a rough first half of the season but came around after the Olympic break.
“I’m not the superstar I was at Miami, I’m a rookie,” Williams said. “The game is faster, more intense and physical. My role at UM was to score. Now, it’s different, and it took time to get used to it.”
Tulsa assistant coach Kathy McConnell-Miller said the staff is very impressed with Williams and had no reservations drafting the feisty guard, who was suspended from the UM team for the 2012 NCAA Tournament for behavior detrimental to the team.
“I was very familiar with BayBay as a college player and know what her potential is,” McConnell-Miller said. “We did our homework, she took ownership of her behavior, and there hasn’t been a single incident on or off the court with us. Nobody outworks her, especially this last month. She is in the gym an hour before practice, and an hour and a half after. She is on the first bus over on game days. And she is practicing at game speed, which she wasn’t doing before. She is loved by her teammates. I’m really proud of her.”A FALLING OUT
Williams left the UM team on bad terms, and does not keep in touch with Johnson. They have seen each other when their teams played, said quick hellos, but that’s it.
“It’s a job,” Williams said. “I can’t get caught up in the Miami stuff. We’re definitely not friends. We’re two different people, always were, and that’s fine. It doesn’t bother me. She does her thing, I do mine.”
Johnson said she tried to reach out, but Williams wasn’t interested.
“I have no ill will toward her,” Johnson said. “I think it’s sad how things ended. It would be nice if we could talk some time because we’re both probably going through the same rookie frustrations, but she obviously doesn’t want to have a relationship with me, so I have to treat her like just another player.”
One to Slovakia. One to Hungary. It’s a job.